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New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children

A selection of memories

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A selection of memories

Gaining confidence

After the dryness of Central Asia and Iran, the rolling pastures around Pahiatua seemed to call us to enjoy their freshness and beauty. One day we went to a farmhouse and asked the owner for permission to play on his property. As my command of English consisted of only a few words, I had to gesture with my hands to make him understand that we would like to go over there and play. He nodding and said yes. Usually I was timid, but I found a new freedom when we ran, sang and rolled down the gentle slope.

Language no barrier

When we were settling into the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, many people came to visit. Some of them were Polish immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the late 19th Century. I met an elderly man whose Polish was as poor as my command of English, but we had a pleasant conversation. I admired the man, who tried to extract from his memory long-forgotten words of his forefathers.

Valued heritage

I left the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua in 1947. Apart from some English, I had learned sewing there which benefited me later when making clothing for myself and my daughter. I moved to Masterton as a waitress in the Midland Hotel. In Dannevirke, I became a women's clothing machinist and met my future husband Eric Fahey, who was a plasterer/bricklayer. We had a happy marriage lasting 45 years before he passed away.

We settled in Palmerston North, raised a daughter and have four grandchildren. Because I married a Kiwi and there were few Poles about, I seldom spoke Polish but never lost the accent. I enjoyed the weekends when I could converse in Polish with my sister and two brothers. I taught my daughter Susan a few words and sentences, which she put to good use on her visit to my brother in Poland. Though I never returned to Poland and accepted New Zealand as my country, I will never forget my homeland. I felt very proud when my granddaughter wrote my biography as part of an assignment at high school. This is now a valued heritage document in the family.

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A struggle

My father, who was an officer in the Polish army, was murdered in the Katyn massacre in 1940. Five of my family died of starvation and disease in Siberian forced-labour camps, and my sister didn't survive our evacuation to Iran. My elder brother joined the Polish army and I was left alone to reach New Zealand. I am bitter that our country was sold to Soviet Russia by our allies into half a century of bondage under communism.

After leaving school, I was pressured to work on a farm, which I did not want to do, and then I chose a trade certificate in carpentry and joinery. I have earthquake construction experience, and worked as an electrician at the control panels for a power station and as a site supervisor for Fletcher Housing. After moving to Australia, I obtained a builder's licence and became self employed.

Born in exile

I don't remember Poland because I was born in 1941 during my mother's deportation to the forced-labour camps in Siberia. I was only four years old upon my arrival in New Zealand. My mother found a long-term job as a housekeeper with Ben Vogel, in what is now Vogel House in Upper Hutt.

It was a lonely time for us and I missed all my Polish friends from the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. We declined a transfer to Picton because my mother didn't want to be isolated from the Polish community. I was fortunate to have led an ordinary life – I got married, saved, bought a house and we raised two children who can speak both English and Polish.

Our teacher mother

Our mother's (Wanda Kalińska) life as a school teacher at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua was bound to the lives of the children both in and outside of school, filling the free time of those young people who were willing to work together with her on projects of various sorts. Her life was a special lecture on patriotism, history and sensitivity to the arts.

Crocheting, painting on wood and glass, and making paper cut-outs helped to develop in the children a manual dexterity and creativity which, if they had lived under normal conditions, they would have learned at home. Our mother also contributed to the cultural life of the camp by producing decorations and stage props for productions. We returned with her to Poland in 1948.

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Polish milkbar cowboys

I was in the first wave of older boys to be sent from the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua to work in Wellington, and was given board by a nice New Zealand family and a poorly paid job. On Sundays, I went to Mass at 7am with the family, and then joined my friends for the Polish Mass and drifted on to the Polish Boys' Hostel in Island Bay for a midday meal. During that time, most of my friends had well-paying jobs on the wharf or at the freezing works, and some even bought motorbikes.

I desperately wanted a motorbike of my own, so I limited my spending to paying board and saved the rest. To avoid spending my money, I stayed at home and amused myself with knitting scarves and making cords with a cotton spool. Then came the day when I had £300 in my post office savings account. Armed with this grand sum, I went to Tommy Oats, a motorbike shop in one of the small alleys off Manners Street, and came out with a brand new AJS motorbike.

The problem was getting it home. Now that I'm over 70 years old, I can admit that I walked it home most of the way. And I can also admit that I bluffed my way through getting my learner's licence. When asked a question I knew nothing about, I would answer with something I was very familiar with. Witold Suchodolski, Czesław Bełczącki, Stanisław Ośeciłowski and I knew how to create an impression with our bikes.

On Sunday afternoons, we would ride out in a band. It was as though we were going into battle when we got on our bikes and rode down the old Western Hutt Road at full speed, avoiding potholes. Our destination was a milkbar in Lower Hutt. We would roar up to the front, get off and walk in fully aware that all eyes were on us.

My first holiday in New Zealand

I was simply terrified when I was sent for my first two weeks' holiday to some strange place called Pungarehu in Taranaki. I didn't want to go but I had no option. And my English was nil. I waited at the station for a long time with my nametag pinned to my dress, and strange women passing by looking at my card and moving on. "Dear God," I prayed, "let someone come soon" because I was close to tears. At last, a woman stopped, studied my card and said "come".

The next morning I was asked what I wanted for breakfast – porridge or an egg? As the word "egg" was much easier to pronounce, I said "egg". Well, I learnt my first word of English. The following day the neighbours came over page 207for cups of tea, and looked me over with interest and curiosity. The biggest shock I got was seeing Maori people for the first time – I had never seen a dark-skinned person before. As the days went by, I got somewhat used to seeing them around but was still afraid of them.

On the day of my departure, I said to my host Mrs D: "Thank you for a lovely holiday." I had learned this by heart because we were told to say this by our teacher at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. My host visibly paled and I could see that she was shocked. I presume she thought I could speak English and had made a fool of her by pretending all along not to understand. I didn't even get a hug and she never invited me over again. Sometimes I wonder what was said about me over those endless cups of tea with her friends and neighbours.

Good memories and miracles

At the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua we made friends, shared stories, laughed, sang, danced, got into mischief and maintained our traditions. Later, I lived with the Conroy family in Karori, Wellington, for one year while attending St Patrick's College in Wellington. They treated me like one of their own and taught me what I needed to know in this country.

I thought my sister Helena and I were the only ones from our family that had survived World War II, but we later received the incredible news from the Red Cross that our mother and brother were both alive, and that we had a new little sister who had been born when we were taken to the forced-labour camps in Siberia. Though we kept in touch, our plans to return to Poland got bogged down in the daily cares. Helena and I both married and raised our respective families, my mother died, and it was 1996 before I travelled to Poland and was reunited with my brother and a sister whom I had never met before.

Barber or baba?

While living at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, my father Bolesław Jankiewicz, who was a staff member there, knew very little English. One day he decided to go to the Pahiatua township for a haircut. Not knowing his way around the town, he stopped a couple and asked, pointing to his hair, where he could have a haircut? The couple replied by asking: "You want a barber?" My poor father was shocked! He did not want a "baba" (which in Polish means a woman who is old or of ill repute), he just wanted his hair cut.

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Setting up a life

We arrived in New Zealand without parents. Our father and our brother Zdzisław Tkacz, who were in the army, joined us here after World War II. Our friends in the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua were envious of those who had parents.

But life wasn't easy when we were setting up house together. Daunted by the responsibility of looking after three daughters, my father remarried to try and give us some family life. To help with finances, we took on boarders. When our stepmother had a stroke after just a few years, the responsibility for looking after the house and boarders fell on myself and my sisters Helena and Regina. My brother Zdzisław, who helped look after us when we were in Russia after our dad left to join the army, now helped with the various expenses and helped us to survive here.

We bought a house in Hanson Street, Newtown, Wellington, which became a focal point of our extended family life where friends from the camp would regularly meet for shared meals and social evenings. The neighbourhood children joined our children to play in the backyard and have remained friends ever since.

We all married Poles from the camp. My sister Helena married Tadeusz Knap, Regina married Tadeusz Reder and I married Stanisław. Stanisław was one of seven children who were separated by the war. He never met his brothers again and all have since died. He had no one to look after him when he left school at 15 but nevertheless became a successful builder. Our five children have also been successful and intermarried with New Zealanders. Their children proudly talk of their Polish heritage.

My friend "Big Ben"

At the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua, all the children except me seemed to be excited and happy. But I was convinced that I was ugly, shy, clumsy and a terrible coward. So I was a victim of bullies in the camp's school. One day I ran crying to the grotto, and prayed to the Virgin Mary about my fate and asked for help. This stopped me crying, and gave me some peace and strength.

On my way back I popped into the army canteen where, behind a high counter, stood a tall stocky man with a round face. On my next visit, he smiled and said: "Hello, big blue eyes." Then he pointed to himself and said: "Bill." When he pointed to me, I said: "Zosia." Later, our English teacher Miss Eising showed us a picture of London's Big Ben. After school I ran to the canteen page 209and shouted: "Hello, Big Ben." He burst into laughter. I felt embarrassed, then one of his brass buttons burst off and we both laughed. Thanks to "Big Ben" I learnt to laugh and be happy.

Memory will always remain

The three years spent at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua will stay with me until the end of my days. I remember it as though it were yesterday – the excitement of taking part in the camp's activities, such as Scouting, sport, being part of a Polish dancing group, Irish and Scottish dancing, and even learning to play the violin. Another happy memory is drinking from a bottle of creamy milk with a straw during playtime. I still remember the names of the New Zealand people with whom I spent my holidays. My mother, two sisters, brother and I returned to Poland in 1947.

The call of New Zealand bush

One day in 1946 I was told that I was to leave the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua and go to work in Wellington. Tailoring was chosen for me and I was good at it. But as a child in Poland I was used to open spaces, rivers and forests, and the sight of my forester father's gun. I thank the person who introduced me to a tramping club and the New Zealand bush.

I joined the Wellington Defence Rifle Club where I learnt the basics of accurate shooting. Soon I was spending all my weekends tramping and hunting, never missing a Christmas holiday tramp in the Southern Alps. In those days it was easy to get a job, but when I applied to the Department of Internal Affairs for a deer-culler's job there were 300 names on the waiting list. The idea that you could go hunting and be paid was very attractive, so I decided to take on deer culling for a few months' holiday.

I was interviewed by Ron Fraser, the conservator of forests, Wild Life Branch for the Department of the Internal Affairs, in his offices in Wellington. He asked for my qualifications, looked me over and said: "This is man's country. If you can handle it and survive in it, OK. If not, out you go down the bloody road."

A deer culler puts his life in danger every day. We worked in very rough terrain and there was always a possibility of injury from slipping or falling rocks, drowning or becoming isolated for a very long time. I hunted deer for four years. I always felt perfectly at home in the bush and never felt lost. In the Southern Alps, I understood what was around me, knew every sound and felt very safe. They were the happiest years of my life.

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A life of hard work

My most memorable years were spent in Porewa between 1958 and 1959 in a small railway settlement near Marton in the Rangitikei district, where my husband had a two-year contract with New Zealand Railways.

The wages were low. We had no electricity in the house and I cooked on an enamel Shacklock coal range, which I still consider better for cooking and baking, and it heated the house well. All the other amenities, including a concrete washtub with a manual wringer and toilet (which was hygienic and odour free), were in separate buildings outside. The washing line was a wire between two trees and our water came from a 300-gallon corrugated-iron tank on the roof.

The nearest shop was some 12km away in Marton. I phoned my grocery order weekly for bread, butter, sugar salt and soap – and very little else. Think of what we can buy in supermarkets these days! My meat order was delivered by train and dropped off at the station. Every couple of weeks, I travelled by train with my two little children to Marton to pay the bills. With the few shillings left over, I would buy them toys.

We had no fridge, takeaways, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, TV, phone or car. We learned to grow a vegetable garden, had egg-laying hens and bought milk directly from a neighbourhood dairy farmer's milking shed. The weekends were dedicated to the family, with picnics by the Rangitikei River. We were poor but happy in that place, and had no time nor the need to feel sorry for ourselves. They were good times. But what I found most hurtful was that we had absolutely no relatives, father, mother, granddad, grandmother, brothers or sisters, or fellow Poles to speak to.

A long-forgotten letter

Stanley Jemioło, a descendant of Polish immigrants to the US, was a Polishspeaking sailor on the USS General Randall that brought us refugees to New Zealand. On the ship, he befriended two Polish boys (my future husband Stanisław Wołk and Stanisław Manterys) because they shared his first name. Once settled in the camp, the boys wrote to him at his request but never received a reply and all was forgotten.

Stanley's tour of duty kept him at sea for another two years, by which time his elderly mother back home in Massachusetts had simply forgotten about the letter. In the process of destroying old books after her death, a neatly wrapped envelope fell out of an old Bible with an unopened letter written by Stanisław Wołk 35 years earlier. In the intervening years, Stanley had searched page 211for the boys through New Zealand sources, the Red Cross, and Polish and US embassies without success.

So 35 years later, in possession of an address from the old letter, Stanley wrote to the mayor of Pahiatua seeking any trace of the two boys. The mayor knew another of the former refugees, Bronisław Wêgrzyn, and so contact was made and the original letter was answered at last.

There was joy and surprise on both sides. Stanley came with his wife to New Zealand on his birthday where he was welcomed by the boys' families in Auckland and Wellington, and other former Polish children refugees. A birthday cake turned up, gifts were presented and a resounding Sto Lat (Happy Birthday) greeting was sung in his honour – in gratitude to a man who in his youth reached out to the children with love and humour, and who took such an effort to be reunited with them so many years later. The Wołk family later visited the Jemiołos in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the two families became very close.

My class friend Maria Chudy (Dołhun)

Maria Dolhun sat next to me in class at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. One day a question was fired at her. She stood up slowly and I watched her face stiffen, and not a word came out of her. With my whole being I felt what she felt, because I was no stranger to that experience. She listened in silence to a harsh comment made by the teacher and sat down. From that day, Maria became a friend.

She asked to be put into employment and a few weeks later left our Standard 3 class to work in the camp's kitchen, mainly peeling potatoes and sneaking out extra bread to the boys when asked. When the camp was closed, Maria went to work at the presbytery of St Anne's Church in Newtown, Wellington, and also worked at a tobacco factory and Wellington Zoo. She has dedicated her spare moments to caring for the Polish chaplains, visiting the sick and helping people in the community. She married, and has children and grandchildren. Her Pahiatua friends also became her family. That's what camp friendship is all about.

For her dedicated hard work in the Polish community, Maria was decorated with the Krzy? Kawalerski Orderu Zasługi Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej (Merit Cross) by the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland. Maria, maybe a little embarrased, looked up and smiled at the ambassador, while everybody, myself included, raised a resounding ovation.

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